Before “petri dish” COVID-19 working conditions sparked office protests, County of Orange social workers have long been overworked while understaffed – likely disrupting their ability to aid families in crisis and protect abused children.

Emergency staff who are a person’s first encounter with the Social Services Agency feel burnt out and overwhelmed – shouldering large caseloads due to understaffing, being sent alone at night to unstable home situations, and stressed by long hours at the agency’s “toxic” workplace. 

That’s all according to a set of grievances against Social Services Agency management, voiced on behalf of workers last month by the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), a union representing roughly 18,000 of the region’s public sector employees.

The problem impacts social workers at the agency’s Children and Family Services Division, according to a Dec. 15 letter from OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield. The division works to protect children from abuse and neglect and assists at-risk families. The letter says the more pressing issues are within the division’s emergency response program.

Barfield, in a written statement to Voice of OC on Thursday, said the issues from his letter last month are ongoing and “will not be solved overnight,” but that the union is now working with the agency on some fixes.

“These issues have persisted for years. We have the receipts to prove it. We have the common sense proposals that the Agency has rejected during bargaining, we have the countless letters asking for relief, we have the notes from meetings with high level agency executives where we have brought the issues of overworked Social Workers over and over again,” Barfield said this week.

Read the letter here.

Last week, the agency’s clerical staff and other county employees also protested “petri dish” pandemic working conditions and the spread of COVID-19 throughout county facilities tasked with delivering critical public services and assistance to residents, as they called for remote-work allowances. 

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“Workplace toxicity has now reached a breaking point. Without immediate action the physical and mental health of workers and the welfare of those who rely on them risk being seriously compromised.”

A Dec. 15 letter from OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield

Since receiving the complaints late last year, County of Orange management says it’s now studying how the Social Services Agency can take the load off overworked staff by streamlining operations and holding forums for workers. 

Responding to Barfield’s December letter, Social Services Agency spokesperson Jamie Cargo said the office is taking measures to address employee well-being and safety, in a Thursday email.

“Over the past year, SSA Children and Family Services (CFS) Division leadership and County Human Resources has worked to implement changes related to workload and staffing,” Cargo said.

For example, Cargo wrote, “[Social Services Agency] continuously explores new opportunities that will allow for the funding of additional staffing and/or help manage workload. One opportunity being assessed addresses newly available funds for enhanced support of Emergency Response workers and supportive services.”

She also notes that in this past fiscal year, the agency has hired “150 social workers in (Children and Family Services). Additionally, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has authorized 76 new social worker positions since July 2020.”

And on Tuesday this week, Orange County’s elected Board of Supervisors approved a nearly $500,000 contract with a workplace management consultant to study how the agency can streamline its operations and take the load off overworked staff. 

Barfield, speaking in support of the Board’s action at the meeting, called it an “opportunity to include the workers in the outcome of those studies.”

Such willingness to listen hasn’t always been the case, according to OCEA’s letter.

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“​​During bargaining […] OCEA has repeatedly proposed bargaining proposals crafted to remedy these long-standing issues but those proposals were consistently rejected by the Agency and the County,” Barfield’s letter adds.

The union’s letter demanded that agency management come to the table with workers on these issues, after a period marked by what Barfield describes as “frequent resistance and little or no positive change” from county leaders. 

“Senior Social Workers” at the Children and Family Services (CFS) division are usually required to have a Master’s degree in Social Work, according to the county’s list of qualifications from an online job board.

Many of the programs administered by the agency are funded through state and federal money.

[Read: OC Moves Millions From Health Agency to Help Cover Sheriff Overruns]

“The toxic work environment throughout (Children and Family Services), particularly in Emergency Response, has robbed workers of the time necessary to achieve the positive outcomes the county desires and the community needs. None of us can afford to allow workers to continue to be subjected to an intolerable work environment,” reads Barfield’s Dec. 15 letter.

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Social workers and the union are demanding new overtime pay policies, a better system for distributing caseloads, more reasonable workload expectations, increased staffing to keep up with community needs while letting other workers take time off, and the same counseling services for social workers that other first responders receive, according to the letter. 

The letter proposes some quick fixes to the workplace issue at SSA — and some longer-term ones. 

For example, allowing workers to operate within one assigned city or region – as opposed to driving to different parts of the county – could increase the availability of an investigating emergency social worker to “complete several visits and return visits in the same day, increasing compliance and contacts,” Barfield’s letter reads.

OCEA is also calling for financial incentives like car stipends for social workers whose vehicle mileage adds up from making visits, and better compensation for workers who carry out the agency’s more intense work — especially on holidays and weekend shifts. 

Chief among emergency social workers’ complaints is the lack of balance that comes with an unpredictable schedule, “forced overtime,” work-created trauma affecting personal life, and weekends spent recuperating from exhaustion, stress, and “emotionally overwhelming experiences,” according to Barfield’s letter.

Another issue is safety. 

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The letter says employees are sent out alone at night “in unsafe neighborhoods and unstable situations” and are “driving long distances fatigued after working all day and into the night.” 

The letter says workers feel “perpetually short staffed due to recruitment and retention challenges” while there’s a “lack of incentive for employees to stay in the most challenging program with the worst working conditions.”

OCEA says management could quickly utilize clerical staff to “save a social worker 1-6 hours of work.”

Like other first responders, OCEA says Social Services management should provide trauma-focused counseling to all emergency social workers. 

The union also says SSA should assign two social workers to any referral involving a death or residences in different regions. 

“We want to help the Agency provide high quality services to the community. For that to occur, the Agency must recommit to help social workers by providing them safe and supportive working conditions,” Barfield’s letter reads.

Cargo, the Social Services Agency spokesperson, wrote that the agency recognizes “the integral role our social workers play in helping to meet basic needs, ensure safe homes, enhance resiliency and support the overall well-being of vulnerable children, families, elderly and disabled residents.” 

“We are committed to providing a safe and supportive work environment for staff and continuously assess areas where we can make a positive impact,” Cargo said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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